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Tough-talking Germans vow to smile more

Hope to regain European, world titles and continue on to Sochi

Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy are confident and ready for the 2010-11 season.
Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy are confident and ready for the 2010-11 season. (Getty Images)

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By Lynn Rutherford and Klaus-Reinhold Kany, special to icenetwork.com
(09/21/2010) - By their own exalted standards, very little went right for Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy last season.

The two-time German world pair champions seemed near shoo-ins for gold at the Vancouver Olympics. Then, Xue Shen and Hongbo Zhao returned to competition and immediately regained favorite status in the minds of both fans and judges.

From there, things went downhill. A disastrous free skate at 2009 Trophee Eric Bompard prompted a hasty change in programs. Even that didn't help: the Germans were third at the Grand Prix Final, losing to both Shen and Zhao and Qing Pang and Jian Tong, and then lost the European title they had won three seasons running.

In Vancouver, their dream of gold slipped to bronze as they were outskated by the two top Chinese pairs. Finally, they lost their world title in Turin to Pang and Tong.

This season, the intense pair and their driven coach, Ingo Steuer, promise to take it easier on themselves.

"We want to approach this post-Olympic season in a more relaxed way; we do not lock ourselves in the ice rink any more and just train, train, train," Szolkowy, 31, said at a test skate and press event the pair and coach held in Berlin yesterday. "The extreme pressure is gone and we skate mainly because we love to skate."

"We really enjoyed our summer; after worlds we had a tour through Europe in April and then we were happy to be quietly at home," Savchenko, 26, said. "We only took two weeks off, but trained quietly and not too much. We went to some shows in Asia but otherwise were at home in Chemnitz."

The team's programs, choreographed as always by Steuer, reflect a more upbeat sensibility: the short is to Russian-Hungarian gypsy music, "Korobushka," performed by Bond; the free skate, to the 2006 version of The Pink Panther by Christophe Beck.

"We are known as a never-smiling pair and we would like to correct this image a bit," Szolkowy said. "We chose music which allows us to show a bit of fun in the program. We still have to get adapted to this comedy-like way of skating, but we're trying."

As for the short, Savchenko -- already looking four seasons ahead -- said, "We have chosen Russian folk for the first time in our career because we want to test it with regard to Sochi [2014 Olympics]."

The team showed their programs, leaving out some elements, and then answered questions from journalists.

How do think your programs are progressing?
Szolkowy: The programs are not yet perfect, but as a whole we are happy with what we did today, under these circumstances. [The rink was dark and the ice was not the best.] This year we did not want to start so early in the season, therefore no Nebelhorn Trophy. The two late Grand Prix in the U.S. and France we were assigned just confirmed our plans.

We want to prepare the season quietly and in a relaxed manner. We do not want to make the same mistakes as last year, when we chose our music too quickly, and went to Nebelhorn without being in good shape.

Will you try any new elements this season?
Steuer: We have practiced the quad throw flip, instead of the triple throw flip, in the program a few times. It did work sometimes, but it needs extremely high concentration. And after the throw we have the jump sequence again, which also needs high concentration, especially since we are trying three jumps [triple toe, triple toe, and double Axel] in the sequence.

However, the federation just told us that only the first two jumps [in a sequence] count. So, we will decide later. We do not know yet if we will also do the side-by-side triple Salchows [in the free].

Sissy Krick, ISU Judge: It is our interpretation [of ISU rules] that if a pair shows a sequence of three jumps only the first two jumps count. But if you show a combination of three jumps [without steps in between] all three jumps count.

What are your main goals?
Savchenko: If we go to a competition, we always want to win. I am, and Robin and Ingo are, very ambitious. We especially want to win back the European and world titles.

Are you starting to feel your ages?
Szolkowy: Yes, I do feel my age; at the moment I have some minor problems with the triple toe loop, just as Hongbo Zhao had before the Olympics. But I am optimistic that this jump will work by November. On the other hand, the lifts are easier for me now than six or eight years ago.

Savchenko: We plan to continue through 2014, but you never know if our bodies will work as we like them to work. It is possible at the end of this season we will decide not to do competitions for half a year or a full season, but we will see. On the other hand, we like to compete. And gold in Sochi remains our main goal, at least for now.

Despite all of your victories, you have never seemed very happy on the ice or during your press conferences.

Savchenko: I really can only smile if everything is perfect. I am a perfectionist. There is always something in our programs which we could improve.

Steuer: The main reason is that for years we did not feel the necessary support of the federation and other officials behind us. We had to fight for everything. But our relation to the federation has improved much in the last year. We know they would like to support us more, also to support me financially, but [Germany's] Ministry of the Interior does not allow this.

Uwe Harnos (German Skating Federation): We would like to pay the coach with public money, but we are not allowed because of Ingo Steuer's working for the Stasi [East German secret police) 22 years go, then denying it in his [application forms] to the German army. If we pay him, the State would stop all public money for the Federation, and we would have to close our office and fire the three people who work there. But we are thinking of other ways to help, for example, giving choreography and off-ice coaching money to the skaters.

Steuer: The skaters receive support from our sponsor Pixel Eis; from public money; and the prize money and shows they do all over the world.

Savchenko: Money has never been the main reason for me to continue skating. But without money, you cannot skate.

How do you feel now, looking back on Vancouver?
Steuer: Certainly we were deeply disappointed right after the Olympics, but the support of the fans convinced us that we had not lost the gold medal, but won the bronze medal.

Savchenko: In sport, after falling you have to stand up again and continue. Therefore the Chinese pair is responsible for us continuing. First, because they beat us at the Olympics. If we had won gold in Vancouver, we would not have continued this season. Second, because they showed us that you can win gold even at an older age [Shen and Zhao were 31 and 36, respectively] and after doing no competitions for two years.

Next, you will be travel to Los Angeles to perform with Yu-Na Kim and Michelle Kwan in All that Skate L.A. on Oct. 2.

Steuer: All that Skate invited us several times to Korea and Aliona and Robin liked to skate there. They had good numbers and the audience responded well. We feel honored they invited us to L.A. where mainly Olympic champions take part, even if we are not Olympic champions. We will not show our competition programs there, because it is still too early.